Books – A Meeting at Corvallis: What would you do?

Books –
A Meeting at Corvallis
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2004
Third book of a series started with Dies the Fire

I haven’t finished reading this book yet, so it wouldn’t be fair to write any kind of review. But the opening chapters force the reader to come to grips with the concept of crime and punishment in societies that can’t afford prisons, where the human population is about 1/100th of it’s current 6 billion, battling for survival against the elements and each other without the aid of electricity, heat engines, or firearms.

I was put off at one of the main characters, Mike Havel, in the first two books because he hung outlaws. Now, hanging is a pretty gruesome way to kill somebody. But it wasn’t so much as the barbaric method of execution that bothered me, but the fact that Mike Havel, along with being the military and civil leader of the Bearkillers, was also the judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner of the prisoners. Even though the narrative makes it clear that these men deserve no sympathy what so ever, this is not something that my Twenty-first Century American mind can accept as just, no matter how it’s described.

In the third book, A Meeting at Corvallis, a different set of heroes in the story must defend their borders against an incursion of bandits, thieves, rapists and terrorists. This band of brigands is lead by a man of aristocracy and money. The aristocrat has hired the criminals to conduct a stealth incursion into our heroes’ territories.

Now, our heroes defeat the bad guys handily, but now need to decide what to do with the survivors.

Without even thinking about it too much, they decide to hold the aristocrat for ransom and behead the rest.

This is certainly a very practical answer. Our heroes have absolutely no facilities for holding prisoners, and we hold no delusions that the criminals will ever be rehabilitated, and if released, they’d simply find other, less well defended, victims. And our heroes are in dire need of money so that they can buy the weapons and supplies necessary to go about their crime fighting ways.

However – the rich guy, who was the mastermind and prime motivator for the crime, gets to live, and the scum of the earth, who were simply being opportunistic, get the death sentence. Even though this directly mirrors our own justice system, it’s still not right. In fact, the only crimes they actually commit are conspiracy and trespassing. They never get the chance to carry out their nefarious plans. Neither of these are capital crimes in any just system.

On the other hand, if I think about it hard enough, I can’t say that I’d handle the situation any differently. At least I would regret the necessity and have nightmares about it.

What would you do?

One Response

  1. It costs about $80,000 a year to keep a man in prison, here-and-now. We can afford to do this, sorta-kinda, because we’re a rich postindustrial society.

    In a much poorer agrarian culture, you really can’t use imprisonment as a punishment — it’s just too expensive, in terms of consuming the very limited surplus most people have over subsistence level. They’re living too close to the edge for luxuries.

    You’re left with fines, flogging, and execution, unless you use the criminals as slaves in one form or another, which has its own problems.

    The people you mention above Don’t Do slavery. Hence they really have no alternative to either letting the bandits go, or killing them. And they’re really not executing them for trespass and conspiracy; they’re executing them for -being bandits-, which is to say the sum of their past and possible future crimes.

    It’s as they said of pirates in the old days, bandits are: “The enemies-general of human kind, to be dealt with as wolves are.”

    They can ransom the aristocrat because he’s only -their- enemy. He may try to hurt them again, but he isn’t going to just casually rape, murder and enslave anyone he comes across.

    As far as losing sleep over it goes, that’s a matter of your life experience. If this sort of thing is routine and has been all your life, you just don’t get that upset. Most contemporary middle-class North Americans (or West Europeans) are extremely insulated from the elemental part of life; they don’t even kill their own food. People in this situation have a different worldview.

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